Motorbikes and mousetraps: the history of ecology at Wytham Woods

from Dr Georgina Montgomery, Associate Member of the History Faculty affiliated to the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and Byrne Bussey Marconi Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in 2021

Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
Charles Elton on his motorbike with mouse-traps, at Bagley Wood, Oxford, 1926 (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

Charles Elton – looking young and adventurous on his motorbike in the 1920s, in the picture above – is often referred to as the “father of ecology.” Elton spent much of his career conducting long-term ecological research in Wytham Woods, which remains an active field site to this day. Although it would be easy to imagine Elton working alone in the Woods, Wytham has embodied a collaborative approach to science. Groups of students and researchers worked together with Elton to collect data on the huge diversity of fauna and flora that exist in Wytham.

One animal that might seem mundane to us, but is important for understanding the ecology of a place, is the mouse. Details about the mice were recorded on a ‘body card.’ This card was specially decorated
by Elton to celebrate the occasion of the 2000th observation, of a mouse which was live-trapped in 1928.(Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

'Body card' recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
‘Body card’ recording the 2000th mouse live-trapped in Wytham Woods by Elton and colleagues (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)

By 1952, Elton and two collaborators, R.S. Miller and B. Macpherson, developed a custom-made punch card for observations of plants and animals at Wytham Woods.

Punch card showing details of mice captured
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 2021, I will be leading walks in Wytham Woods in the footsteps of Charles Elton. These events are part of an appreciation of the history of Wytham Woods as a scientific environment.

An event for children aged 10-12 will take place on 3 July, with an event for adults to be scheduled later in the summer. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nature-science-and-history-all-in-one-morning-for-10-12-year-olds-tickets-159505307669

The photos below capture the diversity of researchers who studied field ecology in Wytham during the 1950s. Students came from across the United Kingdom, and travelled internationally, to study ecology with Elton in Wytham. Below, you see just two of the many women who have conducted research in Wytham Woods from the 1940s onwards. From 1950 the number of women enrolled in Elton’s field ecology course frequently outnumbered the men.

Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1950. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)
Ecology field course, Wytham Woods, 1956. (With the permission of Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Wytham is not only a place for science. Wytham Woods has attracted artists and poets, including Elton’s wife, E.J. Scovell. Her poems often focused on nature. The scientists and artists who now work here also appreciate the beauty of the Woods.

Preserving the beauty of Wytham Woods was also an important reason why this area was given to the University of Oxford by the ffennell family in memory of their daughter, Hazel, who died in 1939, only in her early thirties.

Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
Hazel, Sal and Leez at Wytham, from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)
‘Spring in the farmyard, Wytham,’ a watercolour by Hazel ffennell, reproduced from Hazel : the happy journey (1945)

Futher reading:

    • Dr. Georgina M. Montgomery’s recent publication for The Royal Society’s Notes and Records https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2021.0007 . This essay on the history of Wytham Woods formed part of a special issue entitled “Biodiversity and the History of Scientific Environments” which Dr. Montgomery also co-edited about the history of scientific environments in the UK, USA, and Korea: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/toc/rsnr/current
    • More information about the Wytham Estate can be found in Notes on the History of the Wytham Estate, a limited edition reprint of the 1955 booklet by A.J. Grayson and E.W. Jones of the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford, complete with a pull-out map of the Wytham Estate with annotations from the 19th and 20th centuries.

https://www.oxforduniversitystores.co.uk/product-catalogue/wytham-woods/wytham-woods-products/notes-on-the-history-of-the-wytham-estate

    • For the work of Charles Elton, see the Charles Elton Archive on ORA, The Oxford University Research Archive

https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:89c5e479-6003-45ba-bd78-8a8a12858bf1

    • And find the Correspondence and papers of Charles Sutherland Elton, FRS (1900-1991) in the Bodleian Libraries

https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/333

Decades of manuscript photography on Digital.Bodleian

from Andrew Dunning, R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts

Digital.Bodleian is the online home for Oxford’s special collections in the Bodleian and college libraries. Although it is still relatively new – with a second version coming later this year – it encompasses decades’ worth of photography projects. Many of Oxford’s medieval manuscripts are represented in some form, but only a portion of these have a full set of high-resolution images such as the Bodleian studio can now produce.

A recently photographed manuscript: MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 119v
A recently photographed manuscript: MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 119v

This sometimes means that you can find multiple versions of the same manuscript. For instance, the Bodleian’s famous Romance of Alexander, MS. Bodl. 264, appears online in three different forms:

Historical images of manuscripts can be useful to researchers trying to determine what an item looked like in the past or aiming to understand the history of its interpretation. What are the origins of these different sets of photographs?

Collections on 35-mm film

Between the late 1970s and early 2000s, the Bodleian published manuscript photographs on film. Dr W. O. Hassall (1912–1994), a curator of medieval manuscripts, assembled volunteers, popularly known as ‘Hassall’s vassals’, who occupied the Schola Musicae off the Old Schools Quadrangle and compiled image descriptions. Teachers and researchers could buy colour slides and filmstrips to use manuscripts outside the library including such gems as ‘Humanistic script and illumination’, ‘Pilgrimage’, and ‘Diagrammatic and allegorical wheels’. The complete series is listed in a printed index, Colour Transparencies, 35 mm, Available from the Bodleian Library (1983).

The Bodleian Colour Transparencies catalogue (1983)
The Bodleian Colour Transparencies catalogue (1983)

These collections focus on illuminated or decorated books, and were produced either for a particular manuscript or around a theme. This inevitably promoted certain types of manuscripts, and a particular intellectual approach to them focused on illustration. Researchers were already investigating ways to apply computational methods to this collection by 1978. Libraries abroad built up collections and rented them out, such as the Bodleian Library Slide Collection at Purdue. There are a handful of manuscripts in this series that have full film coverage, but most films aimed to give only representative examples.

The library eventually produced over 20,000 slides. ArtStor of New York funded the scanning of the slide collection, which was shipped to the USA for the purpose. Images appeared both on ArtStor and the Bodleian’s LUNA Image Library, the predecessor to Digital.Bodleian, which researchers remember for both its unexpected treasures and frustrating interface. Other large libraries have developed similar projects to repurpose their old photographic holdings, such as the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

These images eventually became part of Digital.Bodleian after 2015. For example, the Laudian Acts (MS. Laud. Gr. 35), a sixth-century copy of the Acts of the Apostles in both Latin and Greek, appears in four film photographs alongside new digital photography). As well as a historical record, these images are valuable for the detailed descriptions which accompany many images and allow you to search out, for example, images of dragons.

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University (originally the Celtic Manuscripts Project) was among the first experiments in digitizing medieval manuscripts. It was a collaboration between the Bodleian Library, Balliol College, Corpus Christi College, Jesus College, Magdalen College, Merton College, and St John’s College. Beginning in 1995, the project photographed almost ninety manuscripts written between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. It focused on major treasures from Oxford libraries to create wider availability for originals which are often too fragile to handle. The photographs were originally available on a separate website.

Digital photography of the late 1990s from Early Manuscripts at Oxford: MS. Hatton 48, fol. 25r
Digital photography of the late 1990s from Early Manuscripts at Oxford: MS. Hatton 48, fol. 25r

This collection includes many of the oldest manuscripts in Oxford libraries, such as the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, written around 700 (MS. Hatton 48); St Dunstan’s Classbook, designed for teaching in the tenth century (MS. Auct. F. 4. 32); and the oldest copy of The Song of Roland, from the early twelfth century (MS. Digby 23b). It also includes some later manuscripts, such as a five-volume set of Fons memorabilium uniuersi, a humanist encyclopedia from the fifteenth century (Balliol College MSS. 238A, 238B, 238C, 238D, 238E). The project was a pioneer in providing open-access digital photography for complete manuscripts. Although the Bodleian’s studio can now produce even more detailed photographs, the images are serviceable for most scholarly purposes and remain a valuable historical record.

New digital photographs

Early Manuscripts at Oxford received government funding, but this disappeared after subsequent cuts. As at other libraries in the UK, collection digitization is now only possible through researchers who make it an element of a broader grant, publishers who produce a facsimile, or the generosity of donors. Partnering with the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Bodleian’s latest medieval digitization project is Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands, digitizing nearly 600 medieval manuscripts in a project funded by The Polonsky Foundation between 2019 and 2021.

New manuscripts usually appear on Digital.Bodleian only when there is a complete set of photographs. Occasionally, part of a book will appear online to support another research project. For example, MS. Douce 180, the ‘Douce Apocalypse’, has selections from 35-mm film; a small set of images made for comparison purposes in The Apocalypse in Oxford project; and now a full set of photographs. The Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries catalogue lists each set of photographs available for a given manuscript.

Digital.Bodleian represents evolving records of collections rather than giving a single representation of a given item. The results of manuscript digitization are increasingly dazzling as photography technology improves, but they do not reduce the value of archival photographs.